DHS to gather more data from visa-less travelers

Online visa waiver system expanding to help address security concerns.

Jeh Johnson

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said on Nov. 3 that foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program would have to provide additional data in their electronic applications.

The Department of Homeland Security will now collect additional data from foreign travelers who use the agency's online visa waiver authorization system, in order to help address growing security concerns.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a Nov. 3 statement that foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) would have to provide additional data in their electronic applications to its Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

Launched in 2009, ESTA is the automated, online VWP application used by authorities to determine who is eligible to enter the country. All travelers who qualify are evaluated using the system to determine whether they pose a security risk; Customs and Border Protection runs the application website. The VWP allows the residents of 38 participating countries come to the United States without a visa for up to 90 days, if those countries cooperate with U.S. security and information-sharing arrangements.

The new information, said Johnson, includes additional passport data like city of birth and national identification numbers, as well as personal and employer contact information, parents' names, aliases and any other types of citizenship an individual may hold.

Since program began in 2008, DHS said, CBP has denied some 4,300 ESTA applications (out of millions processed) after vetting them against the U.S. government's known/suspected terrorist watchlist.

DHS said it will maintain the new data for two years, then archive it with limited access for 12, allowing retrieval for law enforcement, national security and investigative purposes. The agency did not comment on what changes the expanded data collection effort had necessitated for ESTA systems, on either the front or back ends.

"We are taking this step to enhance the security of the Visa Waiver Program, to learn more about travelers from countries from whom we do not require a visa," Johnson said in his statement. "We are also confident these changes will not hinder lawful trade and travel between our nation and our trusted foreign allies."

The changes also reflect concerns raised on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers have complained of inadequate data submissions by VWP participant countries.

In mid-September, several lawmakers moved to close what they said were gaps in the collection of ESTA data. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, introduced a bill that would give DHS the ability to suspend a country's participation in the program if it fails to provide the U.S. with pertinent traveler information related to terror threats. That bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by the leadership of the full Homeland Security Committee.

In addition, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Scott Perry (R-Penn.) announced legislation that would temporarily suspend the VWP for countries with citizens known to be fighting for Islamic extremist groups like ISIL. Gabbard and Perry noted that hundreds of passport holders from European countries and the United States have traveled to fight with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.

Neither bill has moved out of committee, however.

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